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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will make one of his infrequent visits to Iowa on Wednesday amid growing signs that he could try to steal a victory in a state that toppled his hopes of winning the party's nomination in 2008.
The recent opening of a campaign office in downtown Des Moines has generated fresh speculation about whether Romney is ramping up operations. Advisers say their strategy hasn't changed. But circumstances certainly have, and Romney's campaign appears ready to try to take advantage.
His advisers have long said two things about Iowa: that their candidate will compete in the January precinct caucuses, which start the nominating process, and that he does not need a victory in the state to secure the GOP nomination.
That's still their posture. Chief strategist Stuart Stevens said winning the Hawkeye State is not essential for the former Massachusetts governor. But he quickly added, "We want Iowa to help us win the nomination."
That public stance has been predicated on avoiding risk. By appearing not to put everything into Iowa, Romney's advisers think a loss would hurt him far less than it did in 2008.
But the combination of a fluid Republican race, a recent Bloomberg News poll showing a closely bunched four-way contest in Iowa and the absence of significant organizing by many of Romney's rivals means that he could exceed the limited expectations that the campaign has tried to set for him with an operation that is far smaller and cheaper than it was four years ago.
Romney skipped the Iowa straw poll in August and has maintained such a low public profile in the state all year that he has irritated party leaders such as Gov. Terry Branstad. Last week, Branstad criticized Romney for skipping several candidate forums, as well as a 65th-birthday bash for the governor on Saturday.
With the caucuses just six weeks away, Romney will be a more frequent visitor to the state, officials said. A film crew recently shot footage of him campaigning in Dubuque, suggesting that television commercials may begin airing in the coming weeks. The number of volunteers is growing.
"We'll be here on Wednesday, and we'll be back," said David Kochel, who directs the Romney campaign in Iowa. "There are debates in Iowa in December, and I think we'll be able to remind Iowans that Governor Romney is the best candidate to beat Barack Obama and he'll be here enough to deliver that message."
Although Romney has not been in the state often, his small Iowa team has operated beneath the radar to reach out to past supporters. One Iowa Republican said a Romney representative was almost always at local party gatherings over the summer — eclipsing the presence of virtually all the other candidates.
Some Iowa strategists consider Rep. Ron Paul, Texas, the best-organized candidate in the state, with Romney a strong second.
In addition to Paul's, "the other campaign that knows who their supporters are is Romney's," said an Iowa Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss what the candidates are doing. "It's an absolutely professional ground operation, even though they're very lean and don't want anybody to know they're doing it."
Kochel didn't dispute that assessment. "We've got a lot of friends," he said. "We've maintained relationships with our supporters as best we can. We've always said we're contesting Iowa. It should be no surprise, given all the number of days we spent here four years ago, that we maintain a level of support, and that's a good thing."
Neither former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ga., nor businessman Herman Cain, who are in contention in Iowa, has built a serious organization, according to Republicans in the state. Gingrich's rise in Iowa is attributable to his debate performances.
Romney's campaign has a field staff of four, Kochel said, considerably smaller than it was last time. The candidate has not run any television ads in Iowa. In his last presidential run, he had spent close to $5 million by early November 2007, according to calculations by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Money is much tighter this year, which means that all the candidates are running smaller campaigns than their counterparts of four years ago did (with the exception of Paul, who has more money than he did in 2008).
Romney advisers think that misses the point of the unusual nature of this year's Republican race. Debates are reaching voters far more effectively than traditional campaigning in the early-voting states, they say. That means the candidates are running in a national primary, with state polls often tracking national surveys more closely than in the past.
Traditional campaign activities — town hall meetings, living room discussions and local interviews — have had less effect on voters in Iowa and elsewhere. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minn., won the straw poll in August but received no benefit in the state. Her support dropped after the victory. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent a considerable amount of money on ads in Iowa, and nationally on Fox News Channel, but has seen no boost in his support in the polls.
To the question of whether they are committed to competing in the Hawkeye State, Romney advisers would say that because this race has become nationalized, all candidates are in, whether they want to be or not. The issue is how much time and money they are willing to commit.
Four years ago, Romney did particularly well in a handful of Iowa counties that included major population centers. Among them were counties in eastern Iowa along the Illinois border, in the center of the state around Des Moines and a few in western Iowa, which has a high concentration of Republicans.
Romney does not need to campaign or even organize in all 99 counties to do well. A majority of the GOP vote will come from about a third of the counties. Focusing on the areas where he did best four years ago could produce the kind of turnout that would give him a chance to win the caucuses in January, or finish close enough to the top not to damage his hopes of winning in New Hampshire.